Vegetables can be just as interesting to grow as flowers and a well-kept vegetable garden can be as attractive, to the eye of the gardener, as any flower border. This attractiveness can be increased by adopting the old-fashioned practice of laying out the vegetable garden as a pattern formed by geometrically shaped and arranged beds. Each clearly defined by an edging of bricks. Clipped box. Thyme or something of the kind. This is a style frequently used for herb gardens with excellent results and is equally applicable lo more varied plantations including fruit as well as vegetables.
Even in a small garden it may be worth while lo devote some space to vegetables, particularly to those that are required fre-quently in small quantities, such as parsley and mint, or vegetables such as celeriac and asparagus peas, which cannot readily be purchased at the greengrocers’.
All vegetables need clean, well-cultivated soil and almost all need feeding, though what they are fed with and when it is used will depend on the kind of vegetable.
Thorough digging in autumn or winter with spade or fork is the best soil preparation for vegetables. The earlier this can be done the better so that the rough-turned soil can have all the weathering possible before crops are sown or planted in the spring.
Lime is a more generally useful soil-dressing in the vegetable garden than it is in the flower garden and hydrated lime at 4 to 6oz (110 to 170g) per square yard (per square metre) can usually be given with advantage at least once in three years. It can be scattered over the surface as soon as digging has been completed and left to be washed in by rain and further mixed with the soil when seed and planting beds are prepared. Only on naturally chalky or limy soils is lime unlikely to be required at some time.
Animal manure is also very valuable though it will not be required where root crops such as carrots and parsnips are to be grown. Decayed garden refuse may be. Used instead of manure, or granulated peat, but the last is best used as a surface dressing raked or lightly forked in. whereas animal manure and vegetable compost are best dug in as the work of soil preparation proceeds.
There are exceptions, but most vegetables are either sown or planted in spring and the object is to get the ground quite clear of weeds and broken down to a fine. Crumbly, level surface by that time. Winter frost will help to break up the lumps of soil but the work must be completed by the gardener with fork and rake or with a rotary motor cultivator. Whatever tool is used for the work, the vital thing is to do it when the soil is in the right condition, neither too wet nor too dry. One can work on light sandy soils when they are wet without doing them too much harm, but heavy clay soils be-come so pasty that it is difficult to get any kind of fine crumbly surface (the gardener calls it a tilth) in which to sow or plant. Soil that is too dry can be equally difficult to work, as many of the lumps may have become hard and will refuse to break down.
Usually as winter draws to a close, or very early in the spring, there are a few windy or sunny days when the surface of the soil begins to dry out and as soon as it is possible to walk on it without getting a lot of soil stuck to one’s boots it is time to get busy and break down the clods of soil to a crumbly condition.
How to ensure success growing vegetables
For a lot of people gardening has come to mean growing vegetables, and, apart from the money that can be saved, there is one great incentive – the sheer satisfaction of being able to provide some of one’s own food, of being able to say, ‘I grew that.’
Getting the best possible vegetables from a limited amount of space calls for some very careful planning. There are four basic steps you should aim to follow.
Step one is to prepare the soil thoroughly. The time for digging is in late autumn or early winter if you want to be able to sow in spring. With heavy soils, the earlier you dig the better so that they have sufficient time to be weathered by rain and frost to a sufficiently friable (crumbled) texture for seed sowing.
Step two is to make the soil suitable for particular vegetables, as there are three basic groups of vegetables with different requirements. In the first group there are the root crops, such as beetroot, carrot, parsnip, potato, swede and turnip. These vegetables need the addition of a general fertilizer to the soil before sowing.
In the second group are the ‘greens’, or brassicas, vegetables such as broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower and spinach. The soil for these vegetables should be limed if necessary in winter. Your best plan is to make a simple soil test first. Aim at pH 6.5 to 6.8. The area for brassicas should also be given a top dressing of general fertilizer before sowing or planting. In the third group are all the other vegetables such as asparagus, beans, celery, cucumber, leek, lettuce, marrow, onion, peas, radish, sweetcorn and tomato. The soil for these vegetables should be enriched with compost when you do the autumn or winter digging and top dressed with general fertilizer before sowing or planting. The importance of plenty of good compost cannot be overstressed if you want to be certain of success with vegetables.
The three groups of vegetables, with their varying demands on the soil, mean that we have to use some form of crop rotation to give the soil a chance to recover. Crop rotation also helps to prevent a build-up of disease. This is the ideal, but in the majority of gardens today proper rotation is impossible because of the lack of space. However, by careful planning, you should be able to avoid growing the same “group of vegetables in the same position two years running.
Step three is to sow and plant at the correct time. Forget what it says on the back of the seed packet. You alone can determine your local conditions. If the weather is cold and wet in spring, wait a while. You will gain nothing by attempting to sow in unsuitable conditions. There is an old gardening adage that you should not sow seed outdoors until you see the weeds growing. When sowing, make allowances for the texture of your soil. A depth of 2.5cm (1 in) may be all right in light soil, but on heavy land 1 cm (-0.5 in) will be safer if you want the seeds to germinate. You will also make life easier for the young plants by sowing thinly so that they are not competing for moisture, light and air. In any case, always thin out in plenty of time before the plants become drawn and weakened.
Step four is to get the best possible productivity out of a limited area by a technique called intercropping. Some vegetables mature in weeks, while others take months. So you can grow fast- maturing crops between the rows of slower-maturing vegetables. Between rows of beans (broad, French and runner) you can grow lettuces, radishes and beetroots. Broad beans can also be intercropped with Brussels sprouts. The brassicas can be intercropped with lettuce, beetroot and dwarf beans. Between rows of celery you can have dwarf beans, peas and lettuce.
A second example of getting maximum productivity is called catch-cropping. This is the practice of growing a fast-maturing vegetable in soil that is empty for a short period between the harvesting of one crop and the sowing and planting of another. An example of catch-cropping is the sowing of carrots in early spring on ground which will later be planted in early summer with cabbages. Radishes are a good catch crop since they mature in six weeks or so from sowing. Accurate timing is vital. If you sow the catch crop too late, it will not have matured in time for you to plant the main crop.
Not all seeds can be sown directly out of doors. Some, such as celery and tomatoes, have to be sown indoors and planted outdoors once the risk of frost has passed. Some vegetable plants too can be raised by sowing the seeds directly into peat pots or peat blocks. In areas with poor growing conditions, this practice also assures better yields from crops such as brassicas.